Elise Ashley Hanley
Feast of the Ascension
Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53, 13 May 2018
Trinity on the Green
It doesn’t feel right to preach this morning, without first mentioning that our Episcopal Church suffered a significant loss this past week. The Rev. Dr. Mitties McDonald DeChamplain died on Tuesday, the 8th of May.
Mitties, who would always introduce herself by saying that her name “rhymes with kitties,” was my preaching professor – and she taught and formed me, and countless other Episcopal priests and deacons during her time as homiletics professor at the General Theological Seminary. While I only had one semester with her, I was greatly formed by her. I preached some awful sermons in her class, and she never sugar coated her feedback. But she helped us find our own voices. She always told us to “preach from our gut,” and to “preach with abandon!”
She challenged us to preach extemporaneously, giving each of us a sealed envelope with a Scripture passage in it – once we opened the envelope, we had 2 minutes to get our act together to preach a five minute homily. It was truly terrifying.
She loved theatre, and once said, “A pulpit, is a kind of stage, and preaching is a sacred performance.” She reminded us young preachers that preaching is never to be a solo act – it is never to be about us. Instead, ultimately, what we are doing here, right now, should be a three way conversation – between the preacher, the listener, and the Holy Spirit! She reminded us that if we ever hurt someone through our preaching, that perhaps it could be an opportunity for transformation – for both the listener, and the preacher – after all, even Jesus occasionally hurt people with his preaching! And finally, perhaps the best piece of guidance she gave: “If you see people falling asleep, they needed a nap!”
Besides being a professor of homiletics, and a parish priest, Mitties also served as a volunteer chaplain at the temporary mortuary at Ground Zero after September 11th. She blessed remains that were found, and she offered her loving, calm, non-anxious presence to countless first responders and rescue workers. To me, she will remain a wonderful example of the priest I strive to be – but more than that, the Christian I strive to be. I thank you for joining me today in prayer today for her, and for all the many students and friends who mourn her.
The past few weeks, there have been various other deaths that I know have affected members of our community. Of course, death and loss happen all the time, but some weeks, they seem to occur in greater frequency and gravity. A young child that we have been praying for as a parish, finally succumbed to her illness this week. A young man was killed in an accident. I kept hearing in my head that song, “Gone too Soon,” most notably recorded by Michael Jackson.
“Like A Comet, Blazing ‘Cross The Evening Sky – Gone Too Soon…Like A Rainbow Fading In The Twinkling Of An Eye…Gone Too Soon”
Far too often, when someone we love dies, they are indeed gone too soon, whether they are newborn or 110 years old. Sometimes, we can feel as if our own lives are speeding along too fast – in the blink of an eye, years have passed, we are older, our children have grown, technology has changed and confounded us – where did it go?
On this Feast of the Ascension, I am struck that Jesus, after dying and rising from the dead, is seemingly gone too soon. After his extreme suffering and death, after rising from the dead, one might have thought he’d stick around for a while. If I were one of his disciples, having endured all of that trauma, I would have wanted Jesus around for at least another ten years! Ok, I might have settled for 5 years, but – come on! I would have clung to Jesus in fear of losing him again.
Instead, Jesus only sticks around for 40 days according to Acts- and only 1 day according to the Gospel of Luke! Gone too soon!
Jesus must have understood what it’s like to be on borrowed time. He uses his limited time to show up and teach. He commissions the disciples: he opens their minds to the Scriptures. AH! They finally understand! It finally all makes sense. And just as it all makes sense…. He leaves them! And he gives them work to do. Jesus delegates his work to them, instructing them to proclaim the Good News to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem. But they can’t do it quite yet – first – they must wait. They must go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come and clothe them with power. Now, we know that Pentecost is next week, but what did the disciples know? And then, there are no tearful goodbyes or hugs – Jesus blesses them, and is carried up to heaven. Jesus goes, as he has promised, to prepare a place for them in heaven, and a place for all of us. And Jesus leaves them with his blessing.
Couldn’t Jesus have stayed around? Couldn’t Jesus have become President and CEO of the burgeoning Church? He doesn’t. Instead, it is his leaving that authorizes the Church to begin. He gives space for others to lead – like a parent leaving the family business to the kids when they’ve done what they can, and it’s time for new energy. The disciples are challenged to turn their focus from Jesus to the world. Jesus must leave, so that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, may come. Jesus is not actually leaving too soon, but likely right on time. Like they say, “go when the going is good.”
Amazingly, the disciples do not grieve. They worship Jesus. They return to the temple and they praise God. And there, they wait and pray.
On this Feast of the Ascension, may we wait and pray for Pentecost. Let’s wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to make us anew – to give us guidance and direction as to how to be the Church, on how to be witnesses of the Good News of Jesus in this day and age, in this world where we are ever closer together, yet further apart. Be assured that Jesus has not abandoned us – instead, Jesus has ascended to our Creator God, to prepare a place for all of us. Jesus lives among us through the power of the Holy Spirit, charging us, like the disciples to be his hands and feet in the world. Let us go out into the world with his blessing.